These aren't the Clippers anymore

The arrival of Chris Paul means the Clippers are no longer the Clippers.

The Clippers carried a feeling of impending doom, just by saying the name in that tone of voice, no further explanation needed. The Clippers were the appendage tacked on to any optimistic thought about L.A.'s other basketball team. The Clippers were the logical argument against any top player joining the team, from Kobe Bryant in 2004 to LeBron James in 2010. As in: They are in Los Angeles, play in Staples Center, have plenty of salary-cap room and have Blake Griffin on the roster ... but they're the Clippers.

The Clippers died Dec. 14, 2011, and will be a distant memory as soon as CP3 throws his first alley-oop to Griffin. Remove the italics. The Clippers just made their boldest move since relocating to Los Angeles in 1985. They brought in an All-Star in his prime.

The Clippers and Angels are making the big splashes at the expense of the Lakers and Dodgers? It doesn't even feel like L.A. anymore.

The Lakers can complain all they want about the league shooting down the proposed three-way trade that would have put Paul in purple and gold. As the Clippers just demonstrated, trades can come back to life. Except the Lakers damaged their chances of re-forming the trade when they overreacted to Lamar Odom's pouting and shipped him off to Dallas for nothing more than a draft pick and salary-cap space. That move reeked of newly elevated Jim Buss rather than the deliberate dealings of general manager Mitch Kupchak. The combination of Odom's skill and team-friendly contract made him one of the most valuable trade assets in the league, and the Lakers got nothing but air for him. Paul and Dwight Howard were floating in the trade winds, and that was the deal the Lakers made?

People still expect the Lakers to pull off something, because that's what the Lakers always do. We'll see how long the Magic's "Dwight Howard is unavailable" stance lasts if the Lakers dangle Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. And people still expect the worst-case scenario for the Clippers because that's what always happens to them.

Even if Paul's left knee cartilage wears out like the eraser on an old pencil or if he leaves at the end of his contract after the 2012-13 season, at least the Clippers can say they had him. They made the effort. This league doesn't give credit for trying, but in the Clippers' case, this marks a landmark change. No matter how this turns out, you no longer can say the Clippers never bring in the big name. That's a description that applied to the Clippers, and they're not around anymore.

For a moment, this was setting up as classic Clippers. They got their fan base excited, were in position to say they at least gave it a try, but had a built-in excuse to back out: "The Hornets were asking for too much."

David Stern's rejection of the proposed three-way trade among the Hornets, Lakers and Rockets should have helped the Clippers by removing a potential bidder (which the Lakers then assisted by dumping Odom to the Mavericks). But it actually created political pressure for the Hornets to squeeze all they could out of the Clippers to justify turning down a package of better players. The one argument that can be made for taking this trade over the one that would have sent Odom, Luis Scola and Kevin Martin to the Hornets is that the Clippers players exchanged are younger and on cheaper contracts.

That makes for an easier pitch to any potential buyers who could take the Hornets off the league's hands, and there are rumblings that a sale will take place in the next couple of months.
So the people handling the trade talks on behalf of the league -- Stu Jackson and Joel Litvin -- tried to extract as much as they could from the Clippers. Ultimately, the Clippers were willing to part with their best tradable asset in Eric Gordon. They were willing to tempt fate once again and send the Minnesota Timberwolves' unprotected first-round draft pick to New Orleans. The last time the Clippers gave away a likely lottery pick -- to Cleveland, in exchange for taking Baron Davis' salary off their hands and Mo Williams -- it wound up beating the odds and becoming the No. 1 overall pick.

Suddenly, that little bit of misfortune doesn't seem so bad. Would you rather have Kyrie Irving or Chris Paul? Of course the answer is Paul. See, he already has started to make the Clippers' mistakes of the past feel less painful. (Paul's powers have their limits. He can't undo taking Yaroslav Korolev over Danny Granger in the 2005 draft. Nothing can erase that.)

Not only do you take Paul over Irving, you take him over anyone in the 2012 draft.

You also take him over Gordon. That's what it came down to for the Clippers. Gordon or Paul? The Clippers realized they weren't going to afford to pay Griffin and Paul and Gordon, whose rookie contract will be up after the season. There also were doubts Gordon would even want to stay in L.A. when he became an unrestricted free agent.

There were, uh, basketball reasons, too. A backcourt of Paul and Gordon would go 6 feet and 6-foot-3. So, um, who's gonna guard Kobe Bryant? Gordon struggled to defend big guards such as Bryant and Joe Johnson, and even Paul, a good defender, wouldn't be much help there. Now the Clippers can use the newly acquired Chauncey Billups, who's also 6-3 but much stronger than Gordon.

So the Clippers decided they'd rather spend the money on Paul. And of course, Griffin will get offered everything up to the keys to Donald Sterling's house in Malibu.

If you have a chance to acquire a top-10 player in the NBA -- when you already have a player who can make advance reservations for a spot in the top 10 himself -- you do it. That's NBA 101. The team that gets the player in the headline wins the trade.

Paul and Griffin will be the best point guard/big man combo in L.A. since Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Griffin likes it in L.A. He doesn't leave if he doesn't have to. Now the question shifts: If Paul is around, why would Griffin leave?

The answer to that question used to be easy: Because they're the Clippers. Not anymore. Now they're the Clippers.